Thursday, February 09, 2006

Feynman: Not quite an atheist?

Since my short trip back home over Lunar New Year, it has been unbelievably busy! I managed to get off work in time to slip into the library yesterday before it closed at 9, and read a little more of Feynman's The Meaning of it All. I've had this book for 7 years now, and it's amazing how much reading I've zipped through and not paid attention to. This book is a compilation of three lectures Feynman gave, and as of this writing, I'm just starting to re-read the 3rd lecture titled "This Unscientific Age". More than anything, these lectures gave insight onto the man himself.

"In case you are beginning to believe some of the things I said [before] are true because I am a scientist and [according to the brochure that you get] I won some awards and so forth, instead of looking at the ideas themselves and judging them directly—in other words, you see, you have some feeling towards authority—I will get rid of that tonight."

Now, if he were alive today, I'd imagine Feynman to be a disarmingly charming old professor whose POV regarding science & religion I don't agree with, but someone who pick his words so clearly, so precisely, so scientifically that you find no tempers would fly because the discussions are so intensely intellectual. Encouraged by his own words, I'm going to explore several ideas he spoke in the earlier lectures and my own responses to them.

The first lecture is titled "The Uncertainty of Science". This is where Feynman said those famous words my friend Albert quoted before:

"Scientists are used to dealing with doubts and uncertainty. All scientific knowledge is uncertain. This experience with doubt and uncertainty is important. ... I believe that to solve any problem that has never been solved before, you have to leave the door to the unknown ajar. You have to permit the possibility that you do not have it exactly right."

While as a student I wholeheartedly agree with this statement (and personally attest that doubt is required to practice any good science), I wonder whether one can really go through life with a complete uncertainty in everything (and the effects thereof subscribing to this thinking). Sure we are surrounded by uncertain things: economic trends, natural disasters, difficult choices; but I can go on each day because I know certain things are certain, and one of them is my belief that God is.

In fact, historians and Catholic thinkers would say that the belief in God who systematically made a highly ordered Nature spurred the development of modern science in the Western world into a systematic, sustainable inquiry system. The quest to discover the 'Grand Blueprint' is preceded by the belief that there is a Grand Blueprint.

I might have misread Feynman's intention somewhat when he said that there are different degrees of certainty in science, and that one can never be sure of anything. Feynman described the experience of contemplating the universe as one that is replete with mystery and majesty. One may be forgiven for thinking of him as a deeply religious man from this passage:

"It is a great adventure to contemplate the Universe, beyond man, ... When this objective view is finally attained, the mystery and the majesty of matter are fully appreciated, to then turn the objective eye back on man viewed as matter, to view life as part of this universal mystery of greatest depth, is to sense an experience which is very rare, and very exciting."

See what I mean? ;) I could have been reading an encyclical... from his choice of words!

And he went on to say: "Some will tell me that I have just described a religious experience". Yet Feynman seemed to view institutionalized religion (or the Church, an alternative term which he used interchangeably) as a shallow system of beliefs fit only to regulate morality. (He categorized the influence of religion on three things: the metaphysical, the ethical, and the inspirational; and concluded that since religion is often wrong when it comes to the facts of Nature, it naturally reduced its authority and its power to inspire. However, moral ethics is quite independent from science, he declared). Feynman was also deeply distrustful of absolute beliefs:

"Looking back at the worst times, it always seems that they were times in which there were people who believed with absolute faith and absolute dogmatism in something. And they were so serious in this matter that they insisted that the rest of the world agree with them. And then they would do things that were directly inconsistent with their own beliefs in order to maintain that what they said was true."
Perhaps also, his own experience of religion ('the Church') has been limited to just that, describing a hypothetical young man's journey to the loss of faith:
"The size of universe is very impressive, with us on a tiny particle that whirls around the sun. That's one sun amongst a hundred thousand million suns in this galaxy. Can the rest be just a scaffolding for His creation? ... these scientific views end in awe and mystery, ... but they appear to be so deep and so impressive that the theory that it is all arranged as a stage for God to watch man's struggle for good and evil seems inadequate... the young man's religious experience is of such a kind that he finds the religion of his church inadequate to describe, to encompass that kind of experience. The God of the Church isn't big enough."

For one with such an appreciation for the mystery of Nature and of life, Feynman seemed incredibly pessimistic in the view that we may never reach any Truth. If I were a scientist, pursuit of Truth as a route to the pursuit of God is the ultimate motivation. Along the way, naturally doubt is required in order to 'improve the situation'. However, if one is told that whatever you do it will never make you reach the Truth, why then should I keep pursuing my enquiries? Personally I think Feynman isn't quite the atheist he claimed to be!

A friend of mine, after taking a class on quantum physics, did not quite like Feynman's "school of thought" in theoretical physics (as if there's room for philosophy in science!), saying that it tends to 'break' rather than 'unify', something which I could well understand—given his conviction that the more specific the rule, the more powerful it is. I cannot help but to feel that this path of inquiry he chose is sadly pessimistic; sure his contribution on QED is hugely important, but there is an too much emphasis on matter that the scientific laws Feynman helped discover/formulate are highly specific, and reductionist, though not to an absurd degree as some math axioms I've encountered :p

Look at the time... and this writing only responds to his first and the religious view of his second lecture... I'll continue when I finish re-reading the book.


Bravo said...

Reading your write up has brought me 18 years down the memory lane… When I was 12 year old, I accidentally came across late night TV documentary on Richard Feynman…

About going through life with a complete uncertainty… I will like to quote a recent quote that I mention in my blog on Ruth…”we will not know the full purpose and importance of our lives until we are able to look back from the perspective of eternity. We must make our choices with God’s eternal values in mind....”

Would like to borrow from you this book on a later date…if time allows.

Happy reading.

PS:Go to to watch Feynman discuss the natural and scientific astetics of a flower or hear ...

Enbrethiliel said...


What Feynman said about the God of the Church not being big enough reminded me of St. Paul's comment in the beginning of 1 Corinthians. The Jews want a Messiah and the Greeks want higher knowledge; so when they see the Crucified Lord, the former are scandalised and the latter scoff at the "foolishness" of it all.

Feynman seems to combine both kinds of invincible ignorance (if I may be so bold as to use that term in relation to a scientific genius) in his own mind. In a way, he is a perfect combination of Jew and Greek, being a Jewish scientist. So were many of his contemporaries, whom his biographer James Gleick once described as "the priesthood of physics." He will not settle for any god who does not seem big enough for the universe he studies.

At the same time, however, as you point out, the laws his he has helped to discover and/or formulate hardly contribute to the idea of largeness and completeness, but are paradoxically specific and reductionist. Yet somehow these little laws are big enough??? Hmmmm . . .

Richard P. Feynman: professed atheist and closet mystic? It really does sound possible!

Antonia said...

"Closet mystic" really seems to describe Feynman well.. in fact, Enbrethiliel, I'm beginning to think that most people who are self-proclaimed atheists (who have indeed given the 'question of God' some thought) could not possibly be atheists. I'm not great about labels—perhaps there's one given to this group of people already—but I think they sort of believe there is some Bigger Force out there.

In Indonesia (where everybody needs to profess a religion—lest they're considered communist!), we call it "Kepercayaan kepada Yang Maha Kuasa" (literally translated: "A Belief in the Omnipotent").. I have Feynman's biography "Genius" by James Gleick but I don't recall seeing any treatment of his faith. I'd like to find out more about his 'faith' and other similar